Walking into synagogue Shabbos morning in the Parisian suburb of Montrouge, one may have mistaken it for the holiday of Chanukah. With cries of nes haya po, a great miracle happened here, the energy in shul was palpable. The spree of terror just one week earlier that left the city reeling hit congregants of this synagogue especially close to home. Located one hundred yards from the site where Amedy Coulibaly, the terrorist who would go on to murder four Jews in a kosher grocery store, first began his rampage by killing a policewoman in cold blood, members of this community strongly believe they were his intended target. As one can imagine, spending Shabbos together with this congregation after all that had occurred one week prior was an incredibly powerful and challenging experience.
When it was decided in December that I would spend the Shabbos of my Euro trip in Paris, I searched for synagogues near where I would be staying and found the Jewish community of Montrouge. I sent a message to a shul in the neighborhood introducing myself and requesting davening times as they are not posted publicly for security reasons. The response I received was astounding. I was given the phone number of the synagogue president who in the first minute of my call insisted I not only eat all the Shabbos meals with his family but sleep in his home as well. The willingness of this individual to perform the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim and open his home to a complete stranger was incredibly touching. Throughout Shabbos nearly every member of the shul made it a point to came over and personally welcome me to the community. This all culminated with a public welcome to “Josh from Canada” during announcements.
The security precautions were particularly difficult to grasp. A group of French soldiers currently call this synagogue and many other Jewish sites in France home. They eat and sleep in the shul and strategically position themselves in different vantage points around the synagogue as if an attack is imminent. The shul itself is behind an unmarked door known only those who have a reason to be there. Leaving the synagogue is controlled as well with small groups leaving every couple of minutes to minimize the target. Important members of the congregation are also assigned armed bodyguards who walk them home.
During the dvar Torah Shabbos morning I watched as the rabbi struggled to make sense of all that had happened. Through my broken Canadian-government-mandated French I listened as he attempted to juggle the intense emotions being felt by the community: On one hand, an immense gratitude that their shul was spared. On the other, anguish over the four lives that were cut short. How is it that Hashem could allow innocent Jews buying food for Shabbos to be killed?
This Shabbos Shirah we read Parashat Beshalach which recalls one of the most defining moments in Jewish history, kriyat yam suf or the splitting of the Red Sea. The Gemara in Sanhedrin teaches that as the Egyptians were drowning, the malachei hasharet, ministering angels, request permission to sing a song of praise to Hashem. Hashem in turn responds:
?מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה לפני
My handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you recite a song of praise before Me?!
Although we can never truly understand Hashem’s motives, surely if Hashem is saddened by the suffering of the Egyptians he must weep when the innocent are cut down.
In planning to visit France I made the decision to wear a hat, hide my peyos, and tuck in my tzitzit as suggested time and again by those close to me. Each time I left my host’s home I was once again reminded to leave no visible traces of my Judaism. Over Shabbos I was asked numerous times why I would choose to visit France of all places. Wasn’t I scared? Never once did I necessarily feel scared, but as a visible Jew my time in France was incredibly difficult. It’s an extremely uncomfortable feeling to conceal your identity even if the security situation warrants it, and the experience gave me a newfound appreciation for my home in North America. Despite all this, it gave me a sense of comfort to be able to visit France and demonstrate through action that world Jewry will always be there for our French brothers and sisters.
It is undoubtedly a hard time to be living in France. Nevertheless, faced with terror, the Jews of France have shown resounding strength. With the Egyptians approaching on one direction and a parted sea of uncertainty on the other, Bnei Yisrael were scared, unwilling to enter the sea. The Gemara in Sotah recalls how one individual, Nachshon Ben Aminadav, springs forward into the water choosing to place his faith in God despite the possible danger.
What I ultimately witnessed during my time in France was a vibrant and strong community that has shown that they will not allow terror to inhibit their devotion to Yiddishkeit. Their commitment to attending synagogue, dedication to Torah learning, and emunah in Hashem sends a powerful message that fear will not deter them from living rich Jewish lives.
May we merit to take inspiration from French Jewry and experience such resounding strength during periods of difficulty in our lives as we daven to Hashem for the complete safety and security of Klal Yisrael wherever they may be.